Grilled as you like it

Ippudo ramen in Hakata June 26, 2010

Filed under: Eating,Japan,Travel — laurel @ 4:10 pm
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Ippudo’s honten kasane aji ramen

After Beppu we were off to Nagasaki, but not before changing trains in Fukuoka/Hakata. It was around dinner time, so we decided to try one more time to find the Ippudo Honten. Ramen is one of my favorite foods when traveling in Japan for many reasons. First of all, it’s hard to mess it up, so wherever you find a ramen shop, you are almost sure to find a good meal. It’s also filling yet affordable. And finally, it’s one of those foods that will be hard to find once we go back to America, so we had better enjoy it while we can. Ippudo is a famous chain of Hakata-style tonkotsu ramen shops, and we often stop in at their Ueno location for lunch when we’re on the way to the airport.

I had read in the Japan Times that the original shop has a honten-only tonkotsu made with additions of caramelized onions and chicken broth that sounded worth searching out.

We already knew where one location in the Tenjin district was, so we stopped in there to get directions to the honten.

the hand-lettered menu

Hakata pork bun: a quick and cheap snack

They directed us a few blocks down the way. We found this location. The long line of guidebook-in-hand customers snaking out the door was a good sign that we were on the right track…

…but the fact that the shop had two stories should have been a dead giveaway that this couldn’t be the original shop! When it was our turn to be seated, the host kindly told us that we were in the wrong place and showed us a small map to the honten that was affixed to the outside wall of the restaurant (but obscured by the long line of customers). The real honten was actually still a block away.

Ippudo Honten

Aha! Finally, we found it on the third try. Of course there was a line here too, and this location was much smaller, so it wasn’t moving as quickly. We were starting to feel pretty hungry, but we were inside soon enough.

bowls waiting to be filled with ramen goodness

help yourself to some pickles

hitokuchi (one bite) gyoza

Of course, we had to get the honten kasane aji ramen since it was what we had come all this way for. We also got an order of hitokuchi gyoza to snack on. The honten kasane aji ramen came topped with not just onions, soft-boiled eggs, nori, and charshu pork slices, but also sliced vegetables, naruto (fish cake) and mini wontons. Don’t make the mistake of ordering your soup and noodles “futsuu” (average); instead I always ask the waiter “osusume wa?” (what do you recommend) and get it that way. This is how I learned to order the noodles on the hard side. The noodles continue to cook in the hot ramen broth, so they’ll be too soft and plump by the time you’re finished if they’re already average to begin with. So what’s the verdict on honten kasane aji ramen? I think it was indisputably worth the trouble.

I love the slogan on the staff T-shirts: your happiness of eating this ramen makes us happy

While you’ll have to go to Hakata to try the honten kasane aji ramen, you can enjoy Ippudo’s other ramens (I recommend the akamaru) here in Gunma at their new(ish) Takasaki location:
群馬県高崎市上大類町809番地1号 | Gunma-ken, Takasaki-shi, Kamioorui-machi 809-1


Torikomachi October 18, 2009

Filed under: Eating,Japan,Maebashi — laurel @ 10:39 pm
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Torikomachi’s jidori tsukune

Well it’s been a while since I’ve posted any local restaurant reviews and I’ve been thinking it’s high time. So let’s take a look at Torikomachi, my favorite neighborhood spot for yakitori. You can find Torikomachi just south of Maebashi Station on the same road that leads to Keyaki Walk (the Kinokuniya entrance). Although you can find Torikomachi in Tokyo and other cities around Japan, the sign next to the grill says that they use Joshu jidori (Gunma-raised free-range chickens).

Torikomachi’s bar

If you come with a group you can get a table, but on busy nights, singles and couples usually sit at the bar. If you sit on the far side from the door you can watch the grill-master at work.

If you’re feeling hungry and not wanting to try picking and choosing from the Japanese-only menu, you can choose one of the two set courses in the back of the menu (for two). The “Ume” course includes chopped cabbage, jidori tsukune, one sumi-yaki chicken half to share, yaki-onigiri, tebasaki to yasai nikomi and vanilla ice cream or chicken soup. The “Take” course is all of the same items, except that you get an order of the hitsumabushi rice dish instead of the yaki-onigiri. The set courses are a good variety, but it’s certainly a lot of food, so if you’re not starving, you might want to put together your own selection from the menu.

If you’re ordering a-la-carte, here’s what I’d recommend: first thing after you sit down, order one stick of the jidori tsukune (above) for each person in your group. The jidori tsukune is basically a chicken meatball that’s been slowly grilled and then served with a sweet soy sauce and a raw egg yolk that you can use to paint on another layer of richness on top of the sauce. It’s like a yakitori take on “oyako.”

Sumi-yaki jidori half

While you’re at it, order the sumi-yaki jidori half or whole. Order it right when you arrive because it takes about 30 or 40 minutes to cook. This is one of the best roast chickens that I’ve ever had. It’s slow-grilled over charcoal. The skin is delightfully crispy and seasoned with salt and garlic and the meat is nicely flavorful.

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From the grill (clockwise from top left): yaki-onigiri, chicken liver, hanpen-cheese, aspara-maki

After you order your sumi-yaki chicken you have some time to check out the rest of the menu. There is a great selection of yakitori and kushi-yaki skewers. In addition to the usual chicken or negima skewers, don’t overlook the sunagimo (gizzards) and liver, which are nicely browned and smoky tasting around the edges and tender in the center. Mmm… I also like the hampen-cheese skewers (steamed fish cake with melted cheese), aspara-maki, and meat-stuffed shiitake mushrooms. There’s also a full-page list of flavored tsukune, but I think that the classic jidori tsukune is the best.

The yaki-onigiri is browned and crunchy on the outside and topped with a salty-sweet sauce. The charcoal grill gives it a little smoky flavor too.  You might be thinking, “oh, it’s just a grilled rice ball,” but trust me, it’s a darn good grilled rice ball.

ume-jiso sasami

One of the yakitori items that you shouldn’t miss is the sasami. These are chunks of the chicken tender that are seared on the outside but rare in the middle. They’re juicy and delicious. My favorite is ume-jiso sasami.

close-up view of ume-jiso sasami

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Side-dishes (clockwise from top left): tebasaki to yasai nikomi, marinated okra (otoshi), hitsumabushi , torikomachi salad

Finally, why not try some delicious side dishes? You will get an otoshi (starter) when you sit down: it’s a small side dish of vegetables or sometimes spicy konnyaku. The best side dish (I think so anyways) is the tebasaki to yasai nikomi. It’s a stew made with long-simmered chicken wings in a miso broth with vegetables. The chicken wings are so tender that the cartilage is like gelatin and the broth is super thick and rich. It’s fantastic! The torikomachi salad is made with slices of barely seared chicken with Italian dressing. It’s pretty good, and when you’re eating so much chicken it’s nice to have some greens. If you didn’t get the yaki-onigiri and you’re craving some rice, the hitsumabushi is made with crispy chicken skin, slices of chicken, takuan, green onions and chile threads. First you stir it up and eat some, then you can pour the hot chicken broth on top and eat it like rice porridge.

Torikomachi is open every day except Sunday. There is another Gunma location in Isesaki.



Asian/Southwestern chicken soup April 14, 2009

Filed under: Cooking,recipes — laurel @ 10:58 pm
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Here’s a soup I came up with when I had a refrigerator full of leftover vegetables that I wanted to use up. I used some of the spices that we had brought back to Japan from our recents trip home. Can’t get smoked paprika or chipotle chile powder? No problem, feel free to use regular paprika and chili powder instead. The spices give it a comforting southwestern flavor. It’s only mildy spicy, but add more chile if you like it hot. To give the soup more visual appeal, I sliced the vegetables into matchsticks or long thin slices, but if you want to use square dice it will still taste the same. I used the veggies I had on hand, so this recipe has an Asian/Southwestern crossover feel to it with the daikon, hakusai, and cilantro. Since this is a “use it up” dish, the vegetables you use are totally up to you. I was thinking this soup might be very tasty with some zucchini next time.

Asian/Southwestern Chicken Soup
by Laurel S

1 whole chicken leg (preferably with the bone) or 2 chicken thighs
olive oil
1 onion, sliced
½ carrot, sliced
1 or 2 ribs celery, sliced
1 red bell pepper, sliced
1 ½ inch piece of daikon, sliced
½ cup frozen corn kernels
1 clove garlic, minced
¼ teaspoon powdered chipotle chile
¼ teaspoon Spanish sweet smoked paprika
¼ teaspoon chili powder
1 tablespoon tomato paste
¼ to ½ cup sake, wine, or beer
2 bay leaves
6 cups chicken stock, broth, or water
handful of green beans sliced into 1-inch pieces
1 tomato quartered and then sliced
2 large leaves hakusai (napa cabbage), sliced into ¾ inch strips
chopped cilantro
chopped green onions
salt and pepper (more…)


Gobo-maki and Teriyaki Chicken Drumettes February 25, 2009

gobo-maki (rear) and teriyaki chicken drumettes (front)

Here are two of my favorite recipes from my family’s New Year’s celebration. They’re my grandma’s recipes and both are big hits with adults and kids alike. Since we use these recipes for New Year’s we often make double, triple, or more to make sure that no one misses out. I don’t just make these yummy chicken wings for New Year’s though; they’re great grilled or baked any time of year. Although my grandma doesn’t do this, I like to boil the marinade while the wings are cooking to make a thick, syrupy sauce to pour on top.

A note about working with gobo: it will brown when exposed to air, so cut it just before you put it in the marinade or cover it with water after you cut it to prevent browning.

Gobo-maki: flank-steak wrapped burdock root
by Grandma Suzie

1 lb piece flank steak
2 or 3 gobo (burdock root)
3/4 cup soy sauce
3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup sake or mirin
1/4 tsp fresh grated ginger root
1 clove garlic, grated
2 Tbsp distilled vinegar
2 qt water
1 cup dashi
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp sugar

Have your butcher tenderize the flank steak. Cut the meat into 3 strips each about 1 1/4 inches wide. The meat should be about 1/3 inch thick. Mix the soy sauce, 3/4 cup sugar, sake or mirin, ginger, and garlic. Marinate the steak for 3 hours. Remove the steak from the marinade and rinse thoroughly in cold water. Cut gobo into  strips about 10 to 12 inches long and 1/3  inch square. Combine dashi, salt, and sugar and boil. Remove from heat and soak gobo in this mixture for 2 hours. With a long string, tie 4 or 5 gobo strips at one end. Then secure one end of the meat. Wrap meat and string around burdock and tie string at the other end. Broil 15 minutes, basting with marinade. Cool and slice 1/2 inch thick. Garnish with parsley and dip in soy sauce and mustard.

Teriyaki Chicken Drumettes
adapted from Grandma Suzie’s recipe by Laurel

1 or 2 large packages of chicken drumettes or wings
1/2 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup mirin
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 inch piece of ginger, sliced

Stir together soy sauce, sugar, mirin, garlic, and ginger until the sugar is dissolved. Cover chicken with marinade. Adjust amount of marinade if needed to cover chicken, or make sure to turn chicken occasionally so that everything gets marinated evenly. Marinate for several hours or overnight.

Drain chicken and bake on foil-lined baking pan at 375 degrees F for 50 minutes.

If you like your wings extra-sticky, reduce the marinade to a thick sauce in a saucepan over low heat while the chicken is cooking.

copyright 2009, Laurel S.


Oshogatsu February 21, 2009

Kakudo-family New Year’s feast

During our holiday trip home, we took a short trip to Los Angeles for New Year’s. As always, we started the day with ozoni: mochi in soup. In Japan, it seems like every family has it’s own unique recipe for ozoni that is informed by the region that you live in. At our house, ozoni is made with dashi broth, just a splash of shoyu for saltiness, blanched mizuna (or spinach), kamaboko fish cake (preferably the pink one), and mochi. It’s simple and so good. Of course, we also like hot mochi with shoyu and sugar too. After that, we helped prepare the foods. Here is our New Year’s feast: inari-zushi, maki-zushi, nigiri, tempura shrimp, kohaku namasu, green beans, tai, gobo-maki, teriyaki chicken drumettes, kuri-kinton, kuromame, kamaboko, kombu-maki, lotus roots, nishime (with Shimonita konyaku that I brought from Gunma), komochi kombu, Kobayashi farm dried sweet potatoes, datemaki, and Chinese chicken salad (not a Japanese tradition, but a tradition in our house). Phew! I hope I haven’t forgotten anything. It didn’t seem like so many things while we were making them…

kurikinton, datemaki, kuromame, and Kobayashi farm dried sweet potatoes

Here is my new lacquered jubako (above) that I bought in Kappabashi in Tokyo. The motif is called sho-chiku-bai, meaning the pine tree, bamboo, and plum tree. I hope this lovely box is at many New Year’s meals to come.


We don’t usually have datemaki, a sweet rolled egg cake, but I wanted to try it and found an easy looking recipe in December’s Kyou-no-Ryouri magazine. I didn’t have a square omelet pan, so I baked it in the oven instead. After it was baked, I wrapped it in the oni-sudare rolling mat (see above) to give it ridges and held it shut with rubberbands while it cooled.

I also made the kuromame, but they were much less successful. I’ll have to work on my Japanese-reading ability before next year, because I left the beans in the syrup overnight and it sucked all of the moisture right out of the beans. 😦


Gobo-maki and teriyaki chicken drumettes are definitely a New Year’s tradition in our family. They’re really a favorite among the “kids.”


I made the nigiri sushi while Alex, Jackie, Jenn, Kacy, and EB made the maki-zushi.


adapted from Kyou-no-Ryouri

4 eggs
80-100 grams hampen (steamed fish cake)
4 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons dashi
1 tablespoon mirin
pinch of salt
vegetable oil

Blend hampen to a paste in a food processor. Add eggs, sugar, dashi, mirin and salt; mix well.

Strain the mixture through a mesh strainer.

Oil a square omelet pan (or square or rectangular baking dish) and cook the egg mixture until cooked through and lightly browned on both sides (if you’re using an omelet pan you will need to flip the eggs). (Depending on the size of your pan you may need to reduce the quantities or cook the eggs in batches because you don’t want it to be so thick that it’s difficult to roll.)

Place the cooked egg cake on the pointed side of an oni-sudare. Roll the mat and egg cake together at first to give it a basic, round shape. Then unroll and roll again, wrapping the mat just outside of the egg cake (like making sushi) to make a pretty, round roll. Fasten the mat closed with rubberbands and allow to cool.

When cool, slice into 1/2 inch slices.


Black bean soup with chicken and avocados December 1, 2008

Filed under: Cooking,Japan,recipes — laurel @ 10:50 pm
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Here’s an easy black bean soup that I made for dinner recently. I wasn’t originally planning to make a bean soup, so I hadn’t soaked any beans ahead of time, but as I was getting ready to make dinner, I was struck with a craving for something with southwestern flavor. I headed to the store and picked up an avocado, chicken breast, and bell peppers. I wish I could have gotten cilantro too, but they were sold out at Marche (my local international store), so I seasoned it with fresh sage and dried oregano instead. Amazingly, I even harvested some cherry tomatoes that are still growing out on my balcony to add to the soup.

Luckily black beans cook quickly so I started them boiling first while I chopped and sauteed the vegetables for the soup in another pot. By the time the vegetables were ready, the beans were cooked too. Of course, the easier way to make it would be to plan ahead and soak your beans ahead of time. If you don’t want to take the time to cook dried beans, I think that this soup would be almost as good with canned beans.

After I got the beans cooking I sprinkled a chicken breast with a mix of chili powder, paprika, salt, and my secret ingredient: smoked salt. I love having a jar of smoked salt on hand to give a bit of smoky kick to dishes whenever they need it. Of course, if you don’t have smoked salt, regular salt will do fine too. I let the chicken rest with the seasonings while I chopped the rest of the vegetables. After that I sauteed the chili-chicken, which by the way was tasty on it’s own too, and I made it a few days later for my bento too. Then came the vegetables, and finally I put it all together to make a tasty soup. It’s great with toasted tortillas or tortilla chips. Mmmm….

Black bean soup with chicken and avocados
by Laurel S.

1 cup dried black beans, soaked overnight or 1 can black beans
1 chili-chicken breast (see below)
1 yellow onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 green bell pepper (or 2 Japanese green piman), diced
half carrot, diced
1 to 2 cloves of garlic, minced
splash of beer or tequila
chili powder
1 or 2 bay leaves
fresh or dried oregano and sage
water or stock (chicken or turkey is good)
handful of cherry tomatoes or tomato, diced
handful of fresh or frozen corn kernels
1 avocado, cut into cubes
splash of lime juice or vinegar
sour cream (more…)


Ume-shu chicken November 26, 2008

Filed under: Cooking,Japan,recipes — laurel @ 10:14 pm
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Here’s a great recipe that I’ve made several times from my (sort of) new bento cookbook, Yappari Ohiru wa Obento (Of Course, Lunch is Bento). It’s super simple and quick, so I make it when I want a flavorful main dish, but I don’t want to spend a lot of time cooking. If I use two boneless chicken legs, there is enough for dinner for Alex and I and enough leftover for the next day’s lunch. With salad or vegetables and rice, it makes a great meal! The basic recipe is just ume-shu, soy sauce, and chicken, but last time I made it I added one of the ume from the bottle of ume-shu, chopped-up, and a splash of rice vinegar and Alex declared it the best one yet! I am thinking about adding some garlic or shallots next time for a different flavor too.

I use whole, boneless chicken legs for this recipe. You can read my previous post about why I don’t like boneless skinless chicken breasts here. I also read this great article in the San Francisco Chronicle a few weeks ago about chicken thighs as an economical alternative to chicken breasts. If you don’t like dark meat, or prefer chicken breasts, you can substitute them for the legs. Likewise, if it’s difficult to find whole boneless legs at your store, you can use boneless thighs instead. I recommend that you leave the skin on, however, as it adds fat and flavor to the dish, and it looks nice when it’s browned and glazed with the ume sauce.

Ume-shu Chicken
adapted from Yappari Ohiru wa Obento

2 boneless, skin-on chicken legs (drumstick + thigh)
2/3 cup ume-shu (Japanese sweet plum wine)
1 tablespoon shoyu
1/2 tsp rice vinegar
1 ume (from the ume-shu), chopped (optional)

Trim excess fat and skin from the chicken legs if desired. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, place the legs in the pan skin-side down, arranging them so that they are evenly thick and not overlapping. Brown the legs on both sides. Drain the excess fat from the pan if there is a lot of it (save this for frying eggs or potatoes if you like). Next, add the remaining ingredients. Cook, uncovered, until the liquid reduces to a syrupy glaze. Flip the chicken a few times to coat evenly with the sauce.

To serve, allow the chicken to rest for 5 to 10 minutes. Slice on the bias. Drizzle with sauce before serving.